Improving Safety in Solid Waste Operations (with related video)

Improving Safety in Solid Waste Operations (with related video)

 Solid waste operators — large and small, public and private — are successfully confronting safety on the job.

When Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis kicked off the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s heat-related illness campaign in late April, she did it at a Republic Services facility in Anaheim, Calif. Solis’ choice of location was touted by Republic and others in the industry as recognition of the company’s and the industry’s commitment to improving worker safety.

And in fact, haulers in all quarters of the industry are making targeted moves to improve safety in their operations. Wilmar, Minn.-based West Central Sanitation, Longwood, Fla.-based Waste Pro USA and the Clearwater, Fla., Solid Waste Department are three waste organizations that have made worker safety a priority in recent years and seen positive results. Haulers looking to either jump start or fine tune their safety efforts should find the examples of these three organizations instructive.

First, The Big Picture

With fatalities and injuries on the way down, safety in the solid waste industry is — for the most part — looking up. The latest numbers from Bureau of Labor Statistics show a drop in fatalities for solid waste collection workers from 31 in 2008 to 19 in 2009. For the waste management and remediation segment as a whole, the number declined from 73 to 43. The injury and illness rate for solid waste collection workers is headed in the right direction as well, decreasing more than 21 percent during the same timeframe. “What we have seen over the past few years is an acceleration of a trend: improvements in fatalities and injury rates in large and medium-size companies,” says David Biderman, general counsel and director of safety for the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA).

Unfortunately, the news isn’t entirely good. “We are still seeing too many accidents in local government sanitation departments and small companies,” Biderman says. “They are mostly on the collection side of the industry — drivers and helpers.” He attributes this in part to the fact that many smaller haulers don’t have safety directors or regular access to information that can help reduce accident frequency.

West Central Sanitation

Don Williamson, owner of West Central Sanitation, began his company 31 years ago with one truck. He says he’s seen the industry become much more professionally managed during the past several years, and that includes haulers placing more of an emphasis on safety. “I’m proud and am anticipating more improvements toward this not being known as a dangerous industry,” he says. “There is a culture of safety that is coming down to the smaller companies.”

For his 55-truck business that services 45,000 customers, Williamson believes developing a culture of safety requires forming a relationship with employees and gaining their trust. For example, to help establish rapport and reinforce safe habits, supervisors have to do a ride-along with each of their drivers every one or two weeks. “If the supervisor never gets out of the office, you don’t have that credibility or trust,” he says.

At West Central Sanitation, one size doesn’t necessarily fit all when it comes to safety. Williamson acknowledges there are certain policies that you can’t negotiate on, yet he has found that sometimes it makes sense to tailor your requirements. For instance, he once had an employee who wouldn’t wear his safety gloves and another that didn’t like the safety glasses. After discussing the issues the employees had with the safety equipment, the company was able to find comfortable equipment that satisfied everyone.

Not surprisingly, ice and snow is a major issue for Williamson’s operation. This past winter in Minnesota was especially icy, which led to some slips and falls. To address the issue, the company began providing all employees with safety cleats that slip over a boot or shoe. Some drivers found the cleats bulky, and, in another show of flexibility, next year the company will offer light-, medium- and heavy-duty cleats. “The idea is that something is better than nothing,” Williamson says. “If an employee will use one, we just want to make them safer.”

Rewarding good behavior is another part of West Central Sanitation’s safety efforts.  The firm has financial safety awards that increase in value each year an employee is accident free. Furthermore, the firm’s various facilities are encouraged to create their own incentives, like free bratwurst for everyone if the facility reaches a certain number of days without an accident. “You have to find a way to connect with each employee,” Williamson says. “Whatever it takes to change — money, recognition. Everyone’s a little different.”

When an accident does occur, all supervisors are informed immediately and if someone outside of the company is involved, they are contacted by West Central within the day. A safety committee meets once a month and reviews accidents and injuries. The committee then makes a recommendation about whether the involved parties followed policy, where the weak links in operations were and how the accident could have been avoided. Those issues are then addressed at supervisor meetings that are held once a week.

Five years ago, the company had some costly incidents, bringing their workers’ compensation rating slightly above the national average of 1.0. The company’s rating has been in the 0.9 range — better than average — for the past three years and is declining. “Our property losses have gone down a lot,” Williamson says. “I attribute that to the safety programs and a change of [our] methodology.”

Waste Pro USA

Covering seven states, Longwood, Fla.-based Waste Pro began the year by acquiring 10 waste service companies. One of the company’s biggest safety challenges is preventing incidents in the face of this rapid growth. “We have grown exponentially in 2010 and 2011 not only in acquisitions, but also in organization,” says Brenda Beck, the firm’s corporate director of health and safety. “We need to hit the ground running when we have an acquisition or have a new contract.”

In July 2010, Waste Pro began creating a weekly activity report that compiles safety information from the previous week and notes the region that the data comes from. The report is shared with regional vice presidents, management, maintenance employees, supervisors and regional safety representatives. Furthermore, in March, the company held a safety summit for its regional vice presidents, regional safety managers and corporate staff to go over trends. Waste Pro executives worked with the firm’s insurer to create break-out sessions on rollover accidents and backing and rear-end collisions. “We wanted to drive home the importance of safety and get to the root cause of any incidents,” Beck says. “It got them thinking so that they’re more on track for the information they need to be gathering and looking at.”

As for employee training, new hires are required to watch NSWMA’s “Coaching the Refuse Truck Driver II” video series. They also complete a Decision Driving Certification Program in conjunction with the company’s insurer. The program places a driver-to-be in the truck with a coach and allows him to discuss everything he sees as he’s driving down the road. 

Because the drivers spend so much time in their trucks and on the routes, they are able to provide valuable feedback about a vehicle’s condition. All drivers now participate in a post-trip safety debriefing with a maintenance person at the end of a shift. The driver can address any issues he might be having with the vehicle, which Beck says has decreased the number of vehicle breakdowns. “You need employee participation,” NSWMA’s Biderman says. “Listen to the employees about problems in particular routes or trucks.”

Like West Central Sanitation, Waste Pro provides financial incentives for good safety records. Early on in the company’s history, CEO John Jennings enacted a bonus program under which CDL drivers who achieve three consecutive years with no accidents or citations receive $10,000. All employees are eligible to receive $250 for every year that they meet those criteria. In the past 10 years, the company has given out more than 30 $10,000 checks. Each Waste Pro facility also has specific incentive programs that apply to the drivers.

Clearwater, Fla., Solid Waste Department

Bill Buzzell, solid waste program coordinator for Clearwater, Fla., says that his department has many of the same issues as other haulers: operators dealing with other drivers on the road, customers putting out their trash in an unsafe manner and the risks faced by employees working on the back of the truck. He says the basic safety needs are the same as well: “You have to have management buy-in to operate a successful program. That’s probably the biggest thing whether you are a private enterprise or a municipality.”

Citywide, workers’ compensation claims were down 10 percent in 2010 when compared with 2009. “We’ve never had as much support as we have in the past three or four years for the safety programs,” Buzzell says. “We have really good leadership helping us to focus on that now. We not only want everyone to go home safely, but every dollar we have not going out on a claim helps the entire city.”

Training is a cornerstone of the solid waste department’s safety programs. New drivers are required to complete 40 hours of in-the-seat training and watch the “Coaching the Refuse Driver II” series. The department previously used the “Coaching the Experienced Driver” video by Princeton, N.J.-based Coaching Systems, but found the waste industry-specific series more effective. “We’ve gotten really good feedback because it’s geared toward us,” says Mike Pryor, safety officer for the Clearwater Solid Waste Department. Depending on the type of truck they will be working on, new employees also must go through additional training that covers issues specific to their routes. For instance, employees that will be working on a rear-end loader receive training on proper lifting techniques and using personal protective equipment and watch films on rear-loader crew safety. Crews also are supplied with route books that note stops that pose safety hazards, such as overhanging wires or a nearby hydrant.

Being located in Florida, the department has to be vigilant about safety in the summer heat. Buzzell says Old Saybrook, Conn.-based BLR’s CD series on preventing heat-related injuries has been particularly helpful. The series reminds employees how to avoid heat exhaustion, stress and stroke. The department also provides drivers with Gatorade and water to make sure they stay hydrated on their routes.

To reduce the likelihood of accidents being repeated, a safety review team gathers once a month to go over accidents and injuries. They bring in any individuals involved and discuss the incidents with them. “It’s not disciplinary,” Pryor says. “It’s more of a teaching moment. We go over what they could have done differently.” Each person also gets the chance to share a safety tip.

Looking ahead, the solid waste department is working on a safety incentive program for employees, but it first needs union buy-in. The union would prefer a program that would apply to all city departments. Pryor says the department wants incentives geared specifically for waste workers since theirs is a higher-risk industry. The department also is considering a new disciplinary program that would allow employees with more than one accident to remain in the department, but only in a lesser position. The employees may even have the opportunity to return to the driver’s seat one day. “It will take a long time and a lot of work on their part,” Buzzell says.

Moving Forward

As the solid waste industry continues to improve safety through internal programs, the focus also needs to extend outside of the sector. “Public education is key,” says safety consultant Susan Eppes, president of EST Solutions. “The numbers have gone down in the areas controlled by us. We have driven numbers down internally by making employees more professional and trained.”
Biderman says one of the industry’s most popular programs has been NSWMA’s “Slow Down to Get Around” (SDTGA) campaign, which urges members of the public to drive carefully around garbage trucks and to not engage in driving distractions such as texting or talking on a cell phone.

The campaign now has a Facebook page to reach younger people, who are often distracted while driving, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has endorsed the program. “It’s a very significant milestone that the federal government is endorsing this message,” Biderman says. Haulers have embraced SDTGA as well. In April, Waste Pro USA paid for a public service announcement on a local radio station, and the Clearwater Solid Waste Department is working to get the SDTGA videos put on the city’s local government channel.

It’s also imperative that waste operations of all shapes and sizes share best practices. “It’s not just what the big guys do,” Eppes says. “The little guys need to do it, too. We need to continue to provide the information to everyone and share the message. Safety is for the whole industry, and it shouldn’t be kept within one company.”

Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based contributing writer. She was formerly the managing editor of Waste Age.


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